Tasting AV Pinots, Ray Charles Style

Although I now reside in a lower portion of California that many hill muffins would immediately dismiss as “the hell hole,” my affinity for the wines of Anderson Valley is stronger than ever. I sadly won’t be attending this year’s shindig, but I reached out to a few dusty connections in the Anderson Valley wine world for samples of wines that will be poured in the big tent at the 17th Annual Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Festival on Saturday May 17th. It should come at no surprise that most of the wineries didn’t even respond to my emails or phone calls about doing this story, reaffirming their belief that when it comes to wine journalism, the Anderson Valley Advertiser is no more than a rustic print version of WikiLeaks or something.

Rather than hoard each drop from the bottles that did arrive and judge these Pinot Noirs like Bacchus himself, I got a small group of central coast wine folks together to do a real blind tasting. Most of the wines were from the challenging 2011 vintage, but a couple bottles of the hyped and hotter 2012 season slinked through. Blind tasting is a humbling experience. Nothing else levels the playing field in the company of asshole wine n’cheesers who think they know it all. I’ve seen claimers like these people cheat in blind tastings, sneaking peaks inside the bags, trying to predict what the wine is on the bottle shape, foil capsule, or the buying preference of the host of the blind tasting. It’s not like there’s a prize for guessing what each wine is; only bragging rights if anything. For this Anderson Valley new release tasting I removed the foil on all the wines and had my partner Jillian switch the logo corks around and bag the wines, using a Sharpie to organize the tasting according to vintage, as in 11A, 11B, etc… We had five wines from 2011 and 2 wines from 2012, with an international ringer thrown in to the last flight to keep things exciting.

I invited a variable mix of palates and backgrounds: a sommelier at an oceanfront resort, a biodynamic vineyard manager, a cellar master, and an unemployed nuclear power plant employee. Being a hot week in San Luis Obispo, I chilled the wines down to cellar temperature and we tasted on the back deck at dusk.

11 A — Deep color and darker than usual for Pinot Noir, with pristine filtered clarity. A perfect aromatic profile of raspberry, sour cherry, and berry candy smells, with noticeable toasty French Oak. Plush, expensively smooth mouthfeel, a hint of butter, and yet more middleweight than expected. “I would drink the shit out of this for free,” remarked the cellarmaster. “I don’t like this wine as much anymore,” said the somm who was digging on it at first. He guessed that it was Copain Tous Ensemble, which is a $24 dollar retail wine known for simplicity and value. The BevMo brown bag was removed to reveal the bottle: Twomey 2011 Anderson Valley Pinot Noir. (Note: this wine was delicious two nights later.)

11 B — More rustic looking than Twomey — same depth of color but with a haze. A stronger aromatic intensity is going on, with black tea, baking spices, red fruit, and with a compost-like whiff of fermenting earth. If a wine can smell spicy this is it. Delicious, glossy weight on the palate that is concentrated and goes off into a far spicier acidic finish, with tart raspberry fruit and cinnamon. Oak seems neutral and dirty. Palate is refreshing at first and sparks up on the way out with herbal notes of peppermint and weeds. Needs time for acid to mellow out. “This is the kind of wine I would horde a few bottles of and drink by myself on a weekday at home and just contemplate,” said the vineyard manager. As the group lingered over this one, the bashing began. “This is like fermented pickle juice,” said the somm. “Definitely more artisan than the first wine,” said the vineyard manager. One taster who had poured it out immediately after just smelling it shook his head and said he didn’t like it. This is a lesson for people with thin skins who bring their own wines to blind tastings, as this was my wine and, save for the kind words of the vineyard manager, was now being heavily dissed and angrily splashed out. “It’s clumsy.” “It starts off good and then just falls off.” “There’s no acid and no finish.” The wine? Dark Hollow 2011 Anderson Valley Pinot Noir.

11 C — Is this Syrah? It doesn’t look like Pinot Noir. The wine is black at the core. Smells like a new car or nice leather furniture, Euro cologne, maple bacon, and cherry pie. The weight swirls heavier in the glass than the first two wines. Is there any fruit to put my finger on? Maybe blackberry or something in the really ripe raspberry realm, but the oak, however nice and expensive it is, is hogging the mic. A taste reveals a world of rich blackberry pastries and pancakes and… breakfast in a glass? What’s not to love about this one? The acidity is a surprise and completes the package. “This is the ringer,” shouted the somm. “There is no way this is 2011 and no way this is Anderson Valley.” “Santa Rita Hills?” asked the vineyard manager, citing the hotter climate Pinot region in Santa Barbara County. “I can assure you that this is 2011 and it is Anderson Valley,” I clarified, causing noses to venture deeper in the glasses. “This is my favorite for just drinking,” I overheard. The wine was Goldeneye 2011 Gowan Creek Vineyard.

11 D — This is nearly the same blackish color as Goldeneye. There’s some weight too, but more muffin top than male breasted. The new barrels that must have been used are more obvious on the nose and possibly less integrated than the duck’s, but they are nicely matched for where the grapes are coming from on this. That’s always a plus when a winery either plans to match the vineyard with the right oak profile, or else just gets lucky with the barrels they have. Aside from the oak, there’s pencil lead, wet cellar floor, and a root like smell — maybe Fiddlehead fern. There’s a brightness beneath the cloak, and at the rim it looks a little more aged than the other wines. There’s a dance between the bright cherry flavors, hint of orange peels, spice and the wood. Can a Pinot be both rustic and modern at the same time? After tasting it again I affirmed that this was my favorite wine so far, and it quickly became the unanimous group favorite as well. “This is serious pinot,” the cellar master said. “Easily my favorite so far,” said the nuclear power plant employee. “I would pay forty bucks to drink this,” said the cellarmaster. “There’s energy here,” pontificated the vineyard manager, “which is what I love about the wines I choose to drink.” The bottle was Waits-Mast 2011 Wentzel Vineyard Pinot Noir.

11 E — The most traditional in color, especially compared with the two darker versions that came before it. When I first tasted in Anderson Valley back in 2003 it seemed like every pinot I tried looked as light as this. It’s clear that this is a non-manipulated version of AV Pinot — you can smell the subtle red fruits, a minty bit of that wild pennyroyal, and warm earth or straw that reminds me of the scent of winds running down the valley in the summertime. There’s oak but it’s only there for support, and there’s an interesting note of a Bounce dryer sheet in the background. The mouthfeel is smooth and begins without any hard edges, before thrusts of acidity, spice and tannin pile up for a full throttle finish. This may dictate the 2011 vintage more than the other wines, with its mild aromatics of Pinot Noir that didn’t get overripe and the resultant fireworks display of acid and low brix spice. “If I served this flight non-blind I would’ve started with this wine first,” I told the group. “It’s short,” said the vineyard manager. “It’s like a Willamette Valley almost,” said the somm. I undressed the bottle: Navarro 2011 Methode a’la Ancienne Pinot Noir. Recalibrating our palates with some smoked salmon and gouda, our group moved on to the last three wines. I’d provided spit cups for this but I was the only one using one. After five wines and the Provence rosé primer, there was a collective buzz going.

12 A — Showing the riper vintage from the getgo, the color alone here is darker and the viscosity thicker than most of the 2011s. Aromatics are massive — floral, ripe berries, compost, oatmeal cookie underlay with a hint of orangey citrus. Not meek by any means. This wine is a powerhouse that is going to find a broader spectrum of admirers. The tradeoff is a touch of high alcohol heat which the 2011’s didn’t have. The spice, fruit, oak trifecta is superb, or so I thought. “Mediocre,” said the cellarmaster as he poured it out. “Really?” “It’s overoaked, ripe and too perfect,” he added. The somm agreed. The nuclear power plant dude had gone back to the Waits-Mast 2011 Wentzel! “I really liked this one earlier,” I said, tearing the bag open to reveal the Twomey 2012 Anderson Valley Pinot Noir.

12 B — This wine has a microbial stink and a variety of flaws not seen in the rest of the wines, including burning car tires, struck matchsticks, and a bouquet of barnyard. It’s what I imagine the stench of lighting Bigfoot’s butthole on fire would smell like. It is definitely Pinot Noir but from another planet. The group swiftly called out this wine as the ringer and they were correct. The somm liked it, the vineyard manager said some kind things about it, but it’s pretty flawed. The ringer: French Burgundy from a good year.

12 C — Is this the Anderson Valley Pinot Noir of today? Where the Navarro wine represented the classical style, is specimen 12 C the result of two decades of new winemakers and agencies moving in with their flashy laboratories, new barrels and futuristic winemaking? And is the modernization of Mendocino Pinot Noir a crime? Or is it about time the valley fruit holds its own with Sonoma Coast and Santa Rita Hills in the ripe, blockbuster wine category? This wine could be a Sonoma Coast Pinot from the golden ridge of Cazadero, where the wines aren’t known for color but for an intensity of fruit that includes a zesty orange note and tannins. This wine smartly preserves the foresty, earthy, minty fruit thing, and it’s deceivingly light in color, and a touch hot in the nostrils. It is serious in intensity. The core in the glass is pure and strong, sending vibrations of raspberry fruit, cinnamon stick and acidity out in waves. The wine: Waits Mast 2012 Nash Mill Vineyard Pinot Noir. And the group opinion? The favorite again, though everyone was just drinking by about now.

I was blown away by the quality of the 2011’s and power of the 2012’s. The fact that any good wine was salvaged in moldy 2011 shows the talent of the people behind these five wines. And if you didn’t make impressive wines in the bountiful, mildew free vintage of 2012 then…

AV Pinot Fest Preview

This year’s festival is once again packed with cool gatherings, especially the Friday night BBQ at Foursight Wines in Boonville from 5-8 PM. For $50 you can raid a table full of open bottles, pour your own, grind, and meet valley wine folk and flatlanders alike. The classic big tasting on Saturday at Goldeneye is where it’s at though. Check out my own personal favorites like Black Kite Cellars, Drew, Baxter and Roederer. This year’s tasting will be a perfect opportunity to try samples of recent vintages and even some 2010s from Navarro and new wineries like Panthea Estate who are now releasing a trio of premier releases, my favorite of which is their Londer Vineyard designate: full of spice, raspberry fruit, and good oak handling to tame down what were some ripe sugar levels. Ask this young family operation about their open house on Sunday.

And if you do the winemaker dinner thing, my pick would be Handley Cellars on Saturday night. After a blurry day of excessive wine tasting in a tent and topping that off with a multi-course wine dinner a couple hours afterward, someone’s bound to go face down in their mashed potatoes. I’ve seen a restroom at one of these post event dinner fiascos look like the chef butchered a wild boar over the toilet seat.

(For more information on all of the 17th Annual Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Festival events, log on to www.avwines.com.)

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